Christopher Philippo's Blog: Christmas Ghost Stories and Horror

January 7, 2023

The Story of the Fantom Ass—Judge Byers’ Change of Heart

"A Christmas Carol: The Story of the Fantom Ass—Judge Byers’ Change of Heart" is an 1886 short story printed in Texas Siftings that I'd transcribed for the Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories volume four, that had focused on North American stories. For the most part we ended up steering away from humorous examples like that one, thinking that modern readers' interest in the subgenre has been directed by the line in the song: "scary ghost stories." The Victorians weren't so particular; stories with rational conclusions (and no ghost) or ridiculous conclusions (the "ghost" was a sleepwalker in a white nightgown) were common. Short stories or poems that were humorous from beginning to end were also frequently encountered.

Will there ever been a volume focusing only on the humorous examples? I don't know: is there enough demand for one?
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Published on January 07, 2023 11:47 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories

December 25, 2022

The Holly and the Ivy, and the less palatable

Many of Borlase's Christmas ghost stories were developed from kernels of historical events or folkloric tradition. One that might not have had a specific precedent, but a more general one was "A Bride From the Dead: A Tale of a Dreadful Christmas Wedding" (1899).



Here's perhaps the kind of thing:

THE "FATAL CHRISTMAS DINNER."

INQUEST.
An inquiry has been opened at Beakley Farm, Brokenborough, about one mile from Mamesbury, before Mr. Waltmarsh, touching the death of Mrs. Lloyd, wife of Mr. Robert Lloyd, of the above farm who died in Christmas Day from the effects of eating aconite in mistake for horseradish as already reported.
Mary Lloyd deposed: The deceased was my stepmother. On Christmas Day about noon my stepmother requested me to get some horseradish and prepare it for dinner. I went into the garden to the place where I had twice before procured some; once on the Sunday before Christmas Day, and once a few days before that. On these occasions no one suffered any ill effects from eating the roots. I did not know when getting the roots that it was not all horseradish. Father, the deceased, and myself were all taken ill about half an-hour after dinner. We dined about 12 30, on roast beef, of which my stepmother partook heartily. She also ate pretty freely of what we supposed to be horseradish. About half-past one the deceased felt very giddy and laid down on the bed, thinking she would soon be better. In about ten minutes she was very sick and vomited very much. She soon became insensible, and remained so until her death, which took place about 2.30. Dr. Kinneir was sent for, but being from home Dr. Fitz came, about three quarters of an hour after the deceased had expired. We learnt from him what it was we had eaten, the roots of the aconite. Those and the horseradish were growing together, but I cannot say how they came there. Myself and father were both very ill from the same cause.
Mr. Kinnier, L.E.C.P., deposed: On Christmas Day I was sent to attend Mrs. Lloyd I was out when the messenger came. I arrived about 6 p.m., and found that Mrs. Lloyd had been dead a considerable time. I examined the body. There were no marks on it, but I noticed a peculiar pallid appearance of the face and body, and there was no stiffness or rigidity of the muscles, indicating special action of monkshood or aconite, which it appears she had eaten for dinner in mistake for horseradish. Mr. and Miss Lloyd had eaten of the same, and both suffered from the poisonous effects, which were counteracted by the medical treatment. It is my opinion that the deceased met with her death from accidentally eating monkshood or aconite.
The jury were unanimous in returning a verdict in accordance with the medical testimony.
South Wales Daily Telegram. December 30, 1879: col 3.
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Published on December 25, 2022 05:34 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories, james-skipp-borlase

The Holly and the Ivy, and the less palatable

Many of Borlase's Christmas ghost stories were developed from kernels of historical events or folkloric tradition. One that might not have had a specific precedent, but a more general one was "A Bride From the Dead: A Tale of a Dreadful Christmas Wedding" (1899). Here's perhaps the kind of thing:

<spoiler>
THE "FATAL CHRISTMAS DINNER."

INQUEST.
An inquiry has been opened at Beakley Farm, Brokenborough, about one mile from Mamesbury, before Mr. Waltmarsh, touching the death of Mrs. Lloyd, wife of Mr. Robert Lloyd, of the above farm who died in Christmas Day from the effects of eating aconite in mistake for horseradish as already reported.
Mary Lloyd deposed: The deceased was my stepmother. On Christmas Day about noon my stepmother requested me to get some horseradish and prepare it for dinner. I went into the garden to the place where I had twice before procured some; once on the Sunday before Christmas Day, and once a few days before that. On these occasions no one suffered any ill effects from eating the roots. I did not know when getting the roots that it was not all horseradish. Father, the deceased, and myself were all taken ill about half an-hour after dinner. We dined about 12 30, on roast beef, of which my stepmother partook heartily. She also ate pretty freely of what we supposed to be horseradish. About half-past one the deceased felt very giddy and laid down on the bed, thinking she would soon be better. In about ten minutes she was very sick and vomited very much. She soon became insensible, and remained so until her death, which took place about 2.30. Dr. Kinneir was sent for, but being from home Dr. Fitz came, about three quarters of an hour after the deceased had expired. We learnt from him what it was we had eaten, the roots of the aconite. Those and the horseradish were growing together, but I cannot say how they came there. Myself and father were both very ill from the same cause.
Mr. Kinnier, L.E.C.P., deposed: On Christmas Day I was sent to attend Mrs. Lloyd I was out when the messenger came. I arrived about 6 p.m., and found that Mrs. Lloyd had been dead a considerable time. I examined the body. There were no marks on it, but I noticed a peculiar pallid appearance of the face and body, and there was no stiffmess or rigidity of the muscles, indicating special action of monkshood or aconite, which it appears she had eaten for dinner in mistake for horseradish. Mr. and Miss Lloyd had eaten of the same, and both suffered from the poisonous effects, which were counteracted by the medical treatment. It is my opinion that the deceased met with her death from accidentally eating monkshood or aconite.
The jury were unanimous in returning a verdict in accordance with the medical testimony.
South Wales Daily Telegram. December 30, 1879: col 3.
</spoiler>
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Published on December 25, 2022 05:32 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories, james-skipp-borlase

November 3, 2022

Borlase's Shrieking Skull volume development

The first story of James Skipp Borlase's that I'd found was "A Bride from the Dead: The Tale of a Dreadful Christmas Wedding" (1899), back in January 2020. That year, though, the Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories became a collection of North American stories and poems, so it was never in consideration - though I had liked it.

As I continued to search for more Christmas ghost stories, the first of his that really caught my attention and the editor's was "The Spectre Horseman: or, Haunted Wye-Coller Hall: A Christmas Story" (1903), in March 2021. A particularly Gothic passage marked it as something fit for the VBVCGS series. "The Dead Hand" and "The Wicked Lady Howard" ended up surpassing it as among our favorites from his work, making it into volume five of Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, which returned the series to the British Isles. "The Shrieking Skull" was in the top three, and just narrowly missed being included.

By June 2021 I'd found enough stories of his that I'd noted "a small book featuring just James Skipp Borlase’s Christmas ghost historical fiction could be done." By August, editor James Jenkins agreed, "It's easily enough for a book -- it really might be a good idea, in lieu of a volume 6."

Small! In retrospect, that seems funny. Borlase was a prolific writer, and I just kept finding more. Ultimately, not all of his Christmas stories would fit in one volume - and even post-proof acceptance I've still kept finding more.

Does that mean there will be a second Borlase volume? Maybe - though the majority of the remaining Christmas stories are more of the historical or foreign adventure type than Christmas ghost stories by any definition, though there are still some of those too.

It's also possible that some of the titles of his that I've learned of will remain elusive. A few had been printed in a newspaper's Christmas supplements, and they're not among what has been made available online by the British Library, and one archive I've contacted doesn't believe they have them. Those particular supplements were either one folded sheet of four additional pages inserted into regular issues, or possibly had been a completely separate Christmas edition.

If they didn't survive, why might that have been the case? If the supplement didn't go into all editions, it could be rarer, for one thing. If it had illustrations, people might have cut them up to display those as artwork, or to scrapbook. It's hard to say for sure. Just have to try contacting more archives that might be likely to have them, if they do still exist.
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Published on November 03, 2022 07:16 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories, james-skipp-borlase

October 31, 2022

Victorian ghost (story) hunters

Roald Dahl's introduction to his 1987 Book of Ghost Stories described his hunt at the British Library and elsewhere as having turned up 749 stories, tracked in a notebook as to quality (I wonder if the notes are archived?). On a scale of ten, most were zeroes. Twenty four were good, and ten others had possibilities, he decided.

When it came to Victorian Christmas ghost stories, my experience hewed similarly close to Sturgeon's Revelation. If an anthology were to accurately convey the Victorian experience, most of it would have to be really poor. I don't think any editor today is aiming for historical accuracy in that particular regard.
I noted in the introduction to The Shrieking Skull & Other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories that an issue for the average Victorian reader would have been the limited ability to locate a multitude of Christmas ghost stories in any given year. Not because they didn't exist, but because the average town's newsdealers might not have a large enough selection of periodicals, and the patience of proprietors with members of the public flipping through pages without buying anything would likely have been short.

Most years did not have something like 1871's (widely advertised!) A Host of Ghosts and a Ghost for a Host.. Some publications might not have even one story, while others might have just one or two. Newspapers often had columns in which they'd review Christmas numbers, and that could help a ghost-story hunter if the major journals contained them. It would be of more limited help to someone in town X, however, if other newspapers in their region, or other regions of England or Great Britain had good ghost stories of their own. Those were much less likely to be surveyed in such a column.

Possibly because of that limitation, the death of the genre was proclaimed more than once. E.g.:

the Christmas number that contained a ghost story must be searched for in the backward "files" of time, so to speak, at the British Museum.
Owen, Harold. "The Christmas Spirit." Morning Post. December 25, 1907: 3 cols 1-2.


1907 and the years preceding might not have had bumper crops, but there were still many of them, even by prominent authors of the time like Fergus Hume (and Borlase). However, it could be they were scattered across more publications than it was easy or practical for Owen to try to search.

Suggesting just how much the perception could vary, depending on how hard one looked and the quantity available in which to look, that very same year another author was complaining there were too many stories of the kind:

Ghosts, murders, suicides, and other horrors prevail in the greater part of English Christmas stories, and Australian magazines and papers have, with a few exceptions, the same preference for tragic and grisly tales in their Christmas numbers.
Morrice, E. C. "Gruesome Christmas Stories." Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser. December 25, 1907: 1638.
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Published on October 31, 2022 08:18 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories, james-skipp-borlase

October 30, 2022

the inevitable late findings

There's probably a "Murphy's Law"-like name for it: one always finds something after the proofs have been approved.

Fortunately, in the case of James Skipp Borlase and The Shrieking Skull & Other Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories , there hasn't been anything terribly major.

One of the stories that was included in the volume was “Twelve Miles Broad.” The Australian Journal, Dec. 1885, 187-188. The obscure title is explained within the story. The December 1885 publication and reference within the story to Boxing Day both marked it as a Christmas story,

I belatedly found an earlier publication that pointed to a still earlier one, and its title, aside from making its meaning clear, stated the Christmas connection explicitly:

"A Christmas Fire Twelve Miles Broad: A Warm Story for Cold Weather." Southern Times and Dorset County Herald. March 6, 1885: 3 cols 3-4. [Crediting Home Chimes.]

Presumably the story was in a December 1884 issue of Home Chimes, possibly a special Christmas number. Holdings of the 1884 first volume of that London Journal, are rare. From WorldCat, it appears aso though only the British Library might have it. I can, and probably will, order a scan from them, but turnaround time for that can vary widely. Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, there were long periods of time when they weren't taking orders at all.

I don't particularly expect the text of the story to vary at all, since the Australian Journal probably copied it directly, apart from the title. However, it would be nice to be sure, and to know if Home Chimes had the longer title, or if the Southern Times and Dorset County Herald had created that.

One also wonders whether Borlase had any stories in Home Chimes for any earlier months of 1884. AustLit and Phil Stephensen-Payne's fiction indices at philsp.com have the most extensive bibliographies for Borlase, but even they are far from complete - the former has just fifty-three entries.

For my own reference I'd worked up a bibliography for him and it currently stands at 269 entries. However, a number of his pieces were republished with new titles, sometimes more than once. "Ich Dien; or, For the Glory of Wales," for example, also appeared as "Love Stronger Than Death." Another had at least six different titles. I'd still expect the total to be over 250 distinct works, though. I've added a column to the spreadsheet in which I was tracking them in which to enter first lines in order to make that calculation more exact.

Another fairly minor matter had to do with something addressed in the introduction, Borlase's relationship with humor. I'd cited some comic recitations he'd done while living in Australia, and his brief editorship of Fun, or, The Tasmanian Charivari. I subsequently found he'd had a set of stories in England that had been teased by the newspaper carrying it as "bright, amusing tales" and "a most diverting series!" and as "a series of humourous stories by that popular writer, J. S. Borlase." It's further circumstantial evidence in favor of an argument for his authorship of an earlier humorous story, but without making it any more decisive.
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Published on October 30, 2022 11:59 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories, james-skipp-borlase

December 26, 2021

James Skipp Borlase's Christmas ghost stories abt 1865-1905

Unusually for the Valancourt series, the publishers and I had decided to include two stories that were by the same author in volume five. The fact that he'd written at least sixteen Christmas stories of historical horror and/or adventure and yet none of them had ever been anthologized made it an exceptional case.

He'd hit on a formula of taking actual historical events and resetting all or much of the story's action at Christmastime even though that aspect was not historically accurate. Additionally, he would embellish actual history with inventions, though those too may have been drawn from history in some fashion as well.

For example, in "The Dead Hand: A Tale of a Weird and Awful Christmastide" he took a real relic, The Holy Hand of Saint Edmund Arrowsmith, and grafted it to a story of his own invention involving real practices associated with the dark magical object called a "Hand of Glory." Remarkably, Borlase was not the only author to write a Christmas ghost story involving such a hand; I'd found two by other authors as well.

Ten of Borlase's Christmas stories were published during Queen Victoria's lifetime, the first example that I'd found appearing in 1865. The remaining six saw print between Christmas 1901 and Christmas 1905. By the narrowest definition of "Victorian," technically these last would be Edwardian, but the formula and style did not change after January 22, 1901.

What has been written regarding English theatre and literature does appears to be true of the Christmas ghost stories of the British Isles and the Americas as well:

It is arbitrary and unprofitable to break off the history of the English theatre in 1901 or 1910, for the Victorian era continued, as far as the drama was concerned, until 1914, when it collapsed before the onslaught of the Great War. Consequently the title Late Victorian Plays is offered for this collection, rather than the more accurate but unwieldy ‘Late Victorian, Edwardian, and Early Georgian Plays’.
Rowell, George, ed. Late Victorian Plays: 1890-1914. London: Oxford UP, 1972. vii.


Since Edward's reign was a comparatively short one, it does not have such a distinct literary identity as the Elizabethan or Victorian ages do, and there are hardly any 'Edwardian writers' who were not also late-Victorian writers beforehand or Georgian writers afterwards. Literary history therefore tends to treat the period either as a late extension of Victorian literature or as an interregnum before the arrival of modernism.
Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. London: Oxford UP, 1996. 103.


How or when did the stories change, or did they?
In the late Victorian period, it seemed that humorous Christmas ghost poems were becoming more common than serious Christmas ghost poems. One can also note that Christmas ghost stories did not vanish with the war. Not having looked much at post-1914 stories, however, I couldn't say with certainty whether the frequency of their publication diminished (I would guess it might have), or their content. It merits investigation!
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Published on December 26, 2021 09:27 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories

December 21, 2021

Weird Christmas podcast: The Embalmed Heart

"Podcast! Ghost Stories, Weird Poetry, And All Manner Of Old Xmas Weirdness With Christopher Philippo." < a href="https://weirdchristmas.com/2021/12/21... Christmas. December 21, 2021.

An interview about The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories volumes four and five, some other things I found that were ghoulish, and other Christmas weirdness I had found that wasn't ghostly.

I also read excerpts from a lost (!) Christmas book, The Embalmed Heart and Other Sensational Poems (1889), the excerpts extracted from contemporary reviews of the book. Additionally, I described a two-panel cartoon and read the captions of "The Cats' [Christmas] Ghost Story" (1909) by Louis Wain.

The host Craig Kringle read several poems I'd found: "Christmas in Mars" (1894), "A Story of Christmas Eve" (1897), "The Electric Santa Claus" (1899), and "Christmas Eve Tragedy" (1901).
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Published on December 21, 2021 12:30 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories

December 11, 2021

how the Valancourt Books of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories were compiled

My process for the Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories volumes four and five (and the below will be expanded with more information shortly):

• I made a spreadsheet of the story contents of other publishers' Christmas ghost story (CGS) anthologies (including ebooks and print-on-demand) and then avoided using any of those stories.

Some of the Night Worms' "Very Victorian Christmas" December 2021 monthly book club package unboxing videos that I've seen contain comments like "I don't see any authors I've read before" and "a lot of 'em I've never even heard of before." That was intentional!

If people have an interest in Christmas ghost stories, then they might already have some earlier anthologies, e.g. the ones done by the late Richard Dalby. There is a *lot* of repetition among other publishers' selections. "Christmas Eve on a Haunted Hulk" has appeared in eight different collections, for example. I wanted people to have all, or almost all, of the contents to be new to them. They wouldn't be getting their money's worth otherwise.

Seeking out novelty also meant that some misimpressions could be addressed. In the introduction to volume four I'd quoted anthologist Edward Wagenknecht's 1949 observation that “American examples of the Christmas ghost story are few and far between," something that proved not to be true. Volume five focused on the British Isles, using that term quite purposefully. There'd been some thought that they were specific to London, e.g.:

the Christmas ghost story […] is a primarily English rather than Scottish, Welsh or Irish tradition […] it was the English tradition that dominated, and in particular a London or South-East English tradition. They thus chose and developed programming based on those practices, which were then broadcast to the whole of Britain, regardless of local traditions.
Johnston, Derek. "Migrating M. R. James’ Christmas Ghost Stories to Television." Gothic Migrations: International Gothic Association Biennial Conference, 30 July 2015, Vancouver, Canada.


I included content from other geographic regions of England, as well as set in Scotland, Wales, and even the Isle of Man. Irish traditions will likely show up in some future year’s volume.

• I largely avoided stories in which the apparently supernatural ultimately had a rational explanation.

Stories where "ghosts" were ultimately just things like animals or sleepwalking people had been pretty common. It seemed better *not* to replicate the frequency with which Victorian readers would have encountered such stories. However, given that stories of that nature perpetually formed a part of the Victorian tradition, a few of the more exceptional or more noteworthy ones were included.

• A lot of winnowing took place

In the course of selecting stories for volumes four and five, aside from the stories that ultimately made it into the books, I'd also found and read over 320 other stories that for my own notes I summarized and rated on a 1-5 scale. (There were also a lot of other stories I found read that I didn't bother to rate or summarize because they were so very bad.)

***** excellent
**** great
*** very good
** good
* ok

They’re not straight quality ratings - a good story might be bumped up to very good because it had some other merit, etc. I was conservative with respect to assigning great or excellent ratings to stories.

One or both of the publishers, depending on their workload, also gave input on which stories they liked. Because of the months spent considering possible stories, one thing that factored in was whether some stories had things that stuck with us over time, whether stories we liked on initial reading held up upon re-readings, and so forth. There were multiple drafts of lists of possible stories.

• Some risks were taken

Across the first three volumes there was only one poem. Both of my volumes had a few, though I realize not everyone cares for poetry.

Partly that had to do with my curiosity about Christmas ghost stories arising from the song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." I wondered if there were other songs that mentioned the tradition, or were entirely about it. Some centuries-old carols did mention ghosts, graves, the Devil; modern songs, not so much. Victorian poems, however, mentioned them quite frequently—I'd found over 100. Victorian magazines and newspapers, for that matter, often included poems regularly throughout the year.

While the majority of stories should have broad appeal, it was thought that some could be included that may or may not find their audience. In volume four, "A Cubist Christmas" and "Desuetude: A Ghost Story" are decidedly weird, but having found them I hated for them not to be shared with whatever percentage of readers might like their peculiarity or humor.

In volume five, the poem "Hel-ya-water" is a decidedly difficult one on first read, something immediately obvious from the author's many footnotes to Scottish terms and the few additional ones I added. However, it seemed valuable to shed light on CGS traditions in Scotland, in this case the Shetland Islands with the influence from Scandinavia.

Also in volume five, the length and level of description in "The Siren" may be challenging. Its author or the newspaper editor could have made it shorter, but evidently they were trying to accomplish something by it - immersion, convincing the reader of veracity? I'd recommend looking at old maps of The Isle of Man, satellite imagery, coastal photos, Google Street View.
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Published on December 11, 2021 10:16 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories

December 6, 2021

how to read Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories

In her introduction to the first Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories, Tara Moore wrote in part "To revive the Victorian ghost, invite it in on its own terms. Wait for dark. Dim the lights. If you can arrange a draft to waft through the room, all the better. Meeting the ghosts of Christmas does not limit you to Dickens's edifying spirits; instead, prepare yourself for a sensual experience of midwinter leisure and Victorian story-telling tradition."

Some further thoughts that may not hold true for everyone, but particularly for those that might find them more challenging:

Victorian stories can take some work sometimes. You could check the index as to which stories are the shortest and read those first. There's no absolute need to follow the generally chronological order in which they were arranged. It may help you feel you're making more progress as the percentage of stories you've read increases more quickly. The experience of reading the Victorian styles in shorter pieces may make it easier when it comes to the longer ones.

It could be beneficial to get some distance from your phone/computer/TV and put yourself in the mind of a Victorian reader with fewer distractions. I've needed to do that myself. Leave home and read in a quiet corner of a library if need be.

Don't hesitate to seek out a recording of someone reading a story on YouTube or elsewhere. Experiment with having friends or family members read stories aloud. Encourage Valancourt Books to put out audio books!

Get more of a feel for the era in which the stories were written. Watch, for example, the Victorian Farm: Christmas Special starring archaeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Gunn and historian Ruth Goodman as they try to recreate the time period. Watch the The Mistletoe Bough (1904) - short version | BFI National Archive, The Little Match Seller (1902) | BFI National Archive, The Little Match Girl (1914) | BFI National Archive, and Kino Video's A Christmas Past: Vintage Holiday Films (1901-1925).

For the time period, I also highly recommend Noch pered Rozhdestvom (1913) AKA The Night Before Christmas [not the Clement Moore poem!] and Wladyslaw Starewicz' The Insects' Christmas (1913). The former film, based on a story by Nikolai Gogol, was more captivatingly adapted in Evenings On A Farm Near Dikanka (1961), though.

One of the authors included in volume five, James Skipp Borlase, wrote quite a few Christmas ghost stories. His formula for writing them appeared to have been to take actual local legends and then reset the stories at Christmastime. Here's a version of "The Wicked Lady Howard; or, The Coach Made of Dead Men’s Bones" not set at Christmas Tales from English Folklore #5: The Wronged Lady of Okehampton. It’s nicely done with some location videography at the ruins of Okehampton Castle, a narrator voicing over the story in poetic form, and the old tale itself depicted by silhouettes and some animation.

See if you read better with music in the background or without. (Most Victorian readers would have been without it.) Listen to some music of the broader Victorian era (including the Edwardian Era and up to the entry into WWI). Search for Edison wax cylinder Christmas recordings, or music boxes. Or search for dark Christmas music for more of a mood than historical fitness.
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Published on December 06, 2021 08:51 Tags: christmas-ghost-stories

Christmas Ghost Stories and Horror

Christopher Philippo
I was fortunate enough to edit Valancourt Books' 4th & 5th volumes of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories. Things found while compiling are shared here. (Including some Thanksgiving Ghost items.) ...more
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